American standards

- Bill DeMain

Rock’n’roll smells phony and false,” Frank Sinatra said in the late 1950s. “It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons.” Thirty years later, Frank may have felt vindicated when some of those cretinous goons began to cover his kind of music.

Although there were a few early examples in the 60s (The Supremes and Aretha Franklin among them), the phenomenon of rock and pop singers recording albums of standards began in earnest, as many things do, with The Beatles. Ironically, the Beatle who might have seemed least qualified to tackle great American songwriter­s such as Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer was the one who started the trend. While Ringo Starr’s debut solo album ‘Sentimenta­l Journey’ (1970) didn’t exactly open the floodgates, it drew up a blueprint for all future Great American Songbook projects. A decade later, thanks to Linda Ronstadt’s Grammy-winning trilogy of albums, the idea of ‘standard time’ became a popular career move.

So why cover classic old songs made famous by a previous generation of singers? First, they were built to last. Sophistica­ted, tuneful, full of heart, they’re also flexible enough to be reinterpre­ted in many ways.

Second, it enables singers to age gracefully and show off their vocal ability, all while appealing to a new demographi­c (consider that Rod Stewart’s 2002 release ‘It Had To Be You’ was his first No.1 album since 1979). Third, it’s an acknowledg­ment that good music is really a continuum rather than a collection of opposing styles.

Over the years, the most successful Songbook forays have been those where the singer has some history and emotional connection to the material. You can hear that Harry Nilsson and Brian Wilson not only knew the standards, they had also incorporat­ed their influence into their own work. Having a sensitive arranger like Nelson Riddle or Quincy Jones on board is also crucial in order to add the requisite swing and sparkle. Singers like Carly Simon and Cyndi Lauper have acquitted themselves nicely on throwback albums, but the arrangemen­ts sometimes suffered from cruise-ship blandness.

While we list our classic choices here, there are surely more to come. As a beloved old standard put it: ‘Moonlight and love songs, never out of date.’


A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night (1973)

When Nilsson announced his intention to make this album, his label begged him not to and his producer refused to work with him; it was considered career suicide. But he persisted. And his angel tenor breathed new life into standards like What’ll I Do and Makin’ Whoopee. He got Sinatra’s arranger Gordon Jenkins to construct the album’s intertwini­ng song cycle. In a companion live concert special for the BBC, after Nilsson’s breathtaki­ng version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Jenkins glanced at him and said: “I do believe”. A well-earned benedictio­n from the man who worked with ‘The Voice’.

➋ RINGO STARR Sentimenta­l Journey (1970)

Three years before Nilsson, Ringo became the first rock star to indulge in swing-era nostalgia. An all-star cast of arrangers, including George Martin, Quincy Jones and Elmer Bernstein, provide the brassy blasts and string-laden swoons, but it’s Ringo’s trademark charm that carries the day.

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